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14: January 12, 2009

Manly Men and the L Word

For Christmas my sister gave me Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the multiple biography of Abraham Lincoln and the political nemeses who later became his advisers and friends. Soon-to-be President Obama has famously cited it as a major influence on his own Cabinet-selection process.

One does not get very far into the book when there is a curious exchange of correspondence between one of the titular rivals, William Seward, and a certain Albert H. Tracy: two married state senators in their thirties who strike up a friendship during Seward’s first term as a New York legislator.

“It shames my manhood that I am so attached to you," Tracy writes to Seward. "It is a foolish fondness from which no good can come.” His friendship with another political colleague, he says, “is just right, it fills my heart exactly, but yours crowds it producing a kind of girlish impatience which one can neither dispose of nor comfortably endure… [E]very day and almost every hour since [leaving] I have suffered a womanish longing to see you…” Still unsure as to whether he has ladled it on quite thick enough, he finishes with, “I’ll leave unsaid three fourths of what I have been dreaming on since I left Albany,” to which the twenty-first century reader gasps, “Thank God for small favors.”

In reply, Seward confesses a “rapturous joy” in knowing that “feelings which I had become half ashamed for their effeminancy to confess I possessed” were in fact reciprocated.

But, Seward, it turns out, is the letter-writing equivalent of what my generation dubbed a cock-tease. He would subsequently fall short of the requisite intensity on his end of the correspondence, prompting Tracy to whine, “My feelings confined in narrow channels have outstripped yours which naturally are more diffused. I was foolish enough to make an almost exclusive attachment the measure for one which is…divided with many.” And by the time he gets round to noting that “Love—cruel tyrant as he is—has made reciprocity both the bond and aliment of our most hallowed affections,” I for one am relieved to discover that I can no longer quite figure out what he’s talking about.

This steamy tension builds up for all four years of Seward’s senate term culminating with Tracy’s reminder to Seward, upon his final departure from the legislature, of his long-held “golden dreams of a devoted, peculiar friendship… How much I suffered when I was first awakened to the perception that these were only dreams… For this you are no way responsible. You loved me as much as you could…but it was far less than I hoped.” Well, then.

Elsewhere in this massive book the author touches on similar relationships, notably that of Lincoln and his Springfield friend and bedfellow Joshua Speed which had been the subject of an earlier book speculating on Lincoln’s sexual preference. Lincoln’s musings to Speed during their separations were less florid than Tracy’s—“You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting -- that I will never cease, while I know how to do any thing…” “I regret to learn that you have resolved to not return to Illinois. I shall be verry lonesome without you…” etc.—but still sound pretty racy to contemporary ears, especially when one grasps that these two grown men slept in the same bed for four years prior to the separation that compelled them to start communicating via post.

Goodwin pooh-poohs the whole “gay Lincoln” business, and in so doing earns the gratitude of multitudes who, on so many levels, would prefer to picture just about any historical personage other than Lincoln—Thurgood Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt, Homer Simpson—engaging in vigorous cornholery. Her point is that a certain effervescent fruitiness (my phrase, not Goodwin’s) was generally pervasive in man-on-man correspondence throughout this period:

Their intimacy…is more an index to an era when close male friendships, accompanied by open expressions of affection and passion, were familiar and socially acceptable…. As the historian Donald Yacovone writes in his study of the fiercely expressed love and devotion among several abolitionist leaders in the same era, the “preoccupation with elemental sex” reveals more about later centuries “than about the nineteenth.”

The bed-sharing was likewise customary in a time and place where beds were a scarce commodity. As a Springfield lawyer in the 1850s, Lincoln rode the circuit from town to town with a clutch of fellow lawyers. By day they fought each other tooth and nail in rural courthouses; then they ate together in taverns and retired upstairs to share double beds. (If I were among that group and knew that I faced a tough row to hoe in court the following day, I’d load up on beans at supper and then climb into bed with my opponent. This, I suppose, is indicative of why mine is not now, nor is ever likely to become, a face on any nation's currency.)

Unless I missed something, Goodwin never flat out says that Lincoln and Seward and so forth weren’t gay—and she seems especially eager to avoid passing judgment on Tracy, whose tenuous grip on fame begins and ends with the creepy correspondence he carried on with not only Seward but with Mrs. Seward as well; she merely makes the point that no conclusions could be drawn solely from the way these chaps wrote letters to each other. In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Joshua Speed wanted Lincoln’s log in his cabin, as it were—they would have written steamy letters to each other in any event because that’s what menfolk did in those days when they weren’t splitting rails or buying Alaska. There’s enough of this sort of correspondence lying around to assure us that the bulk of it must have come from properly stoop-shouldered, cleavage-staring, shirttail-neglecting heterosexual men.

It’s this very topic of nonsexual male friendship that I’ve been mulling quite a lot in recent years. For one thing, since by virtue of living here in Japan I isolate myself from the few high school and college buddies that I can still call friends, my contact with them is now almost entirely limited to email. It’s awkward at times, of course, but I take some solace in knowing that it would be much more so if we were still mired in nineteenth-century customs of correspondence. Then I would find myself churning out emails like this:

Dearest Gary,

My heart shuddered in its cage this morning at the site of an email from you—and with attachment no less! Your sketch of the cover design for my new book which you so devotedly etched by means of Adobe Illustrator sent palpitations cascading down my spinal cord and thence into my hibernating loins.

If only I could see you now, Gary, and express my undying love and gratitude to you in person. How long it has been since I felt the sinews of your bony hand in mine! My fondest hopes are that one day soon I might once again meet you, and embrace you, and clench your throbbing member tightly between my butt-cheeks until it crystalizes into a phallic diamond. Let us dream together of such a day, my old friend.

Forever yours,

You see how it goes. You see how quickly these things can escalate, how easy it is to go to far. This is what happens when the rules go out the window—specifically, the rule that men should never, ever deconstruct their feelings of friendship for one another. Open expressions of affection between non-gay men are taboo in our day and age, and I for one think that it’s a taboo that has earned its stripes—not at all a dubious taboo like, say, the one under which George H.W. Bush is not permitted to refer to his own half-Mexican grandchildren as “the little brown ones” or the one under which someone like me can’t express a preference for Asian women “just because.” Tear down the taboo against open expressions of affection between non-gay men and you’re opening flood gates that will be very hard to hammer shut again. As in the cases of Seward and Tracy and many others, such friendships could only end in hissy fits and recriminations and ostentatious mutual snubbery that would make the cast of The Hills blush with shame.

But it’s not just the issue of how men write letters to each other that has focused my mind on this whole topic of nonsexual male friendship. My new memoir (which you might actually get to read sometime this year) is, you see, to no small extent a study of the friendships of young American men--namely, the friendships of my college friends and me in the Seventies.

As the book inches ever closer to publication, I’ve begun to have the usual panic attacks over how it will be received—by the general public, of course, but above all by those who are, however pseudonymously, portrayed in it. I suspect that those old friends who recognize their pre-disco selves in the book will react at first with the usual lip-curling revulsion experienced by people who recognize themselves as pseudonymous characters in someone else’s memoirs. Why, oh why, one of them will wonder, couldn’t Muggins have waited until my parents are safely dead to tell about the summer when an acre of the family ranch was appropriated for marijuana cultivation? But this initial, superficial bout of revulsion will gradually give way to an even deeper and more sustained revulsion when those old friends realize that the whole book is little more than a love letter to our youthful cameraderie.

Throughout the early drafts of this book I struggled with how to express the feeling that existed among us in our youth. For me as a writer it was, if I may indulge in one of this era's most overwrought clichés, the elephant in the room. I contemplated a subtle approach until realizing, not for the first time, that I suck at subtlety. Thus, the final version trots out the forbidden L word right there on page 1, where I introduce one of my closest friends, the owner and terrible driver of a Firebird Trans Am:

I looked at him with the love that a man can only feel for another man who could land both men on a waiting list for prosthetic limbs at any moment through an errant twitch of his elbow.

…and that line pretty much sets the tone.

As the Seward-Tracy estrangement demonstrates, this literary airing of my affection for old friends does not bode well for our future intercourse (using the word in its nineteenth-century meaning, of course). Putting one’s man-crushes in print has roughly the same effect on those very relationships as radiant energy waves have on microbes in raw poultry. On the other hand, given that I’ve been out of touch with most of these friends for over ten years now, I suppose the risk isn’t that bad. Before they could break off relations with me, they'd have to re-establish them first, and that might be fun. The lone exception is aforementioned cover artist Gary, whom I have cleverly fake-named “Cary” in the book, and for whom I declare my love on page 101. Gary/Cary has read the manuscript and not voiced any objection, so that’s a good sign. All the same, and in all seriousness, I’d feel properly awful if any of the old gang tracked me down and upbraided me for publicizing our ancient affection. And I guess that's why I find the correspondence of great and semi-great men of the nineteenth century so...icky: it holds up a mirror that I'd rather not peer into.

Well, I’m resolved to go through with the publication of this book, come what may. It was just too much fun telling the stories in it. I mean, it was the Seventies, for heaven’s sake—need anything more be said? So I’m going to try breaking the taboo on man-on-man public declarations of affection and see where it takes me. But after just this once doing so, I henceforth intend to honor the taboo. There really are things in this world best left unanalyzed, and the bonds between heterosexual men fit snugly into this category alongside the trajectory of the 2002-NT7 asteroid, the current status of my ex-girlfriend’s first marriage, Kim Jong Il’s operatic oeuvre, and the precise chemical composition of Mariah Carey’s bosoms.

Enough said, then, about all that.